We went to the Ai Weiwei Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in October 2015 and were heavily impressed. We had been fans for some time, but the exhibition brought his art a lot closer with the large number of his top works and the information that was provided with it.
One of China’s most influential artists, Ai became widely known in Britain after his sunflower seeds installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010, which was also the first time we realised what league he was playing in and we followed him more closely since then, nearly exclusively through the media.
We both always liked political art, art that isn’t just decorative or artistic, but that has something more important to say, art that tries to change society and not just change art, art that is angry in a creative, inspiring, idealistic way.
Ai’s art is about creative freedom, censorship and human rights, and also examines today’s society in China. But you can feel that there is also a deeper message to it, this guy will not bow to anyone and he clearly thinks no one else should. His art is really about rebellion and freedom in a more general and very liberating, nihilistic, anarchic sense. His art says ‘no prisoners’ in more than one way (Ai certainly doesn’t give the impression that he’d be one who’d take prisoners and he is also protesting against political imprisonment and suppression). We hadn’t seen so much energy in art in a very long time.
The fact that Ai is an incredibly skilled craftsman enables him to play with all types of techniques and materials seemingly effortlessly.
At an event around the exhibition, we ‘met’ Ai in person (didn’t speak with him though, even though the group was small and many others in the audience did). We learned that he attributes his skills mainly to his childhood. No doubt this will all be on Wikipedia, but to us it was new: his father was the poet Ai Quing, who had fallen out with the regime, and, when Ai was one year old, the family was sent to a labour camp and a year later exiled to one of the outer provinces, where they were forced to stay for 17 years until they were finally allowed back to Beijing again.
It was during this time, as a little boy and later as teenager, locked away from society and with a lot of spare time at his hands, he started to create items from the material at hand.
The RA exhibition was the first major exhibition in the UK trying to give a comprehensive overview of his work and it showed that it was curated in collaboration with him.